The People Smuggler
Robin De Crespigny
Read from my local library
Ali Al Jenabi was born in Iraq. His father was tortured by Saddamn Hussein’s Baathist Party and Ali himself was captured, tortured and held prisoner for years. His younger brother was captured with him and tortured, believed murdered and two more brothers were also taken prisoner. When he is forced to flee the country, he leaves behind his family in Iraq and from then on, everything that he does is in order to get his family out.
Firstly they go to neighbouring Iran, which having been involved in a war with Hussein for years, is now a prime place for Iraqi refugees to flee. From there they head to Turkey but several times Al Janabi is captured and returned. Finally he makes his way to Asia where through contacts, he begins assisting Middle Eastern refugees, primarily Iraqis, get to Australia.
For many in the Middle East, Australia is the promised land. Few know more about it other than it’s extremely far away, it’s a Democracy, it’s an island and it has weird animals. For many, it is their hope and their dream, to get there. But in the late 1990’s and early 2000s, in the time of the Howard government, the country was closing its borders to refugees. Boats were turned back. If they made it to Australian soil, the people were herded into detention centres where they could remain for years while being processed.
Ali successfully sent seven boats to Australia filled with refugees. Not one of them was lost and all landed safely and had the people processed. Everything he did, every risk he took, every dollar he took from an asylum seeker was so that he could get his own family to Australia – his mother and his brothers and sisters. But the Australian Federal Police had been watching him for some time and when he left Indonesia, where people smuggling is not a crime, they pounced.
Brought to Australia for trial, the prosecutors attempted to paint a picture of a man smuggling for profit. Instead Ali Al Jenabi became known as a figure of hope, of loyalty and of kindness. The amounts of money he often took to get men, women and children to Australia were pitiful. He went above and beyond to ensure the safety and security of the boats, to make sure that there was enough food. He became known as the “Oskar Schindler of Asia”, helping a persecuted people find a better life.
But what he did was still illegal…and even to this day, Ali Al Jenabi waits for a visa.
This is another Stella Prize longlisted book – a non-fiction story of a man whose situation was desperate. Forced at a young age to become man of the house and provide for his family when his father was taken prisoner, Ali Al Janabi was groomed from a young age to have the answer. He continually risked everything to get his family to safety – first out of Iraq, then to Asia and finally to their ultimate destination, Australia.
As a young adult of the Howard regime, I remember all too clearly the beat up over the boats and the Tampa crisis and not to mention the children overboard fiasco. In Australia, you are taught to fear the boats, to hate the boats, to not want the boats anywhere near this country. They are queue jumpers, they are illegals, they are probably not even genuinely in danger. They’re coming to take our jobs, our homes and … whatever else we have here. Soon we’ll all be Muslims and forced to wear headscarves. And the people that risk their lives bringing them here, are to quote former PM Kevin Rudd, “scum”.
To everyone that thinks that, I beg of you, read this book. This book should be mandatory reading for every Australian school student. It should help provide the one thing that the government does not: the other side. That not everyone who takes a passage on these boats is rich, and buying their way through. That not everyone who is helping them get here is money grabbing scum. Sometimes they are just people like Ali Al Janabi – trying to do the right thing for their family, trying to get them to somewhere where they believe they will be safe. Unfortunately, what often happens to people when they finally arrive in The Lucky Country is not what they dream of. The fact that Australia did not respond to Al Janabi’s application for a protection visa for over twelve months when the law is 90 days is shameful. The fact that they applied for protection through the UN in Pakistan before Al Janabi went to Asia and were turned down is mind-boggling. They’d had members of their family imprisoned, tortured and murdered. And yet when Al Janabi’s mother and siblings arrived on one of his boats to Australia, when they were processed they were deemed to be genuine refugees and given visas. So how can the same family be denied once, at the height of the Iraqi situation while Hussein was still cheerfully murdering and invading his way throughout everywhere, but then be accepted later on? The process failed them all, the organisations failed them all and if it weren’t for the risk taking and ingenuity of Ali Al Janabi, I cannot even begin to think what might have happened to them.
I was too young to really remember the first Gulf War and what Saddam Hussein was doing to the people of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. The more I try and read about it, the more of a mess it seems to me. You can’t give a person like Hussein billions of dollars to fight one war and expect that he isn’t going to look for another one. People like that are power hungry and see whatever is nearby as theirs. And you can’t encourage rebels to rise up against such a person but not give them a single ounce of support, either.
This is a truly brilliant book. It’s written with understanding and compassion, sympathy and even humour. That someone can experience something so bleak and come out of it still enjoying life the way he is, the way he is trying to, is a triumph for Ali Al Janabi. As of the end of this book (and now, I believe) the current state of his visa is still uncertain. He was finally issued a temporary protection visa, which means that when Iraq is considered stable again, he will be deported. Almost all of his family now live here and to deport someone who has been through what he has been through, would really be a crime against humanity. Three Ministers For Immigration have rejected his application for a visa and to be honest, if the Coalition win the election in September like the media keeps telling me they will, I don’t hold out much hope for him when he applies to a fourth.
The world needs more people like this man.
Book #72 of 2013
The People Smuggler is book #32 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the 3rd book I’ve read and reviewed for the Stella Prize longlist.